SPACE: Reach for the Stars

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For the first time, Wernher von Braun's reach for the stars was accepted as more science than science fiction. In the summer of 1954 Von Braun and a dozen other space enthusiasts from the services and industry gathered in the Washington office of Lieut. Commander George Hoover, U.S.N., to talk about launching a satellite. Von Braun proposed to slam a 5-lb. chunk of metal into orbit with the brute force of a souped-up Redstone; the Office of Naval Research kicked in $88,000 for work on an instrumented satellite, and Project Orbiter was born. It was shortlived; a panel of scientists sailed into the picture to recommend that the U.S. satellite become a project for the International Geophysical Year, and decided to put their money on the beautifully designed but totally untried Navy Vanguard. Argued Wernher von Braun: "This is not a design contest. It is a contest to get a satellite into orbit, and we're way ahead on this." He was overruled. In the astonishing 1955 decision to divorce satellite development from weaponry, the Vanguard was accepted as having more "dignity." Snorted Wernher von Braun at the time: "I'm all for dignity. But this is a cold-war tool. How dignified would our position really be if a man-made star of unknown origin suddenly appeared in our skies?"

Wernher von Braun and his rocket team, the world's most experienced, were specifically ordered to forget about satellite work. They did no such thing, and neither did their U.S. Army bosses. The Von Braun team had been authorized to develop the Army's Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile as a competitor of the Air Force's Thor—and Von Braun said he needed test vehicles to iron out some of the problems. He wangled permission to build twelve Jupiter-Cs—actually, almost the same jazzed-up Redstones with which he had proposed to put a small moon into orbit.

By Sept. 20, 1956, the first Jupiter-C was ready for firing at Cape Canaveral. It was a four-stage missile, with even a dummy fourth-stage satellite configuration—just like the bird that last fortnight put Explorer into orbit. By this time, Pentagon brass had a notion that Von Braun might be trying to beat the Navy into space with an unauthorized—and presumably undignified—major satellite. The Army, which had had the foresight to bring Von Braun and his team to the U.S. in the first place, and which had supported him all along in the face of awesome obstacles, would have liked nothing better than for him to toss up the first U.S. satellite. Such men as Lieut. General James Gavin, the brainy chief of Research and Development, and Major General John Medaris, the able military commander at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, saw in a successful moon, and its proof of rocket superiority, a way for the Army to break out of its post-Korea roles-and-missions bog-down. But the orders giving Vanguard its exclusive franchise on space were clear and firm, and the Army could not risk defying them.

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